Disaffected Catholic women who object to men seeming to have all the ecclesiastical power and who think that it should be shared more equally – or perhaps that men ought to have less power and they ought to have more? – should ponder the life of Dr Evelyn Billings, who died on February 16. An Australian doctor and devout Catholic who grew up on a farm and was the mother of nine children, she was also famous, alongside her husband, Dr John Billings, for teaching what they termed the “Billings Method” of natural fertility regulation and for founding in 1978 the World Organisation Ovulation Methods Billings (WOOMB).
Fr Joseph Hattie OMI, a close friend of Evelyn’s, or “Dr Lyn” as she was known around the world, wrote the homily for her funeral Mass. In it he describes how Dr Billings “was called to join her husband in a special apostolate to married couples and families” in which “she saw clearly the truth of the good that would bring conjugal happiness and other benefits to married couples”. For half a century the Billings travelled the world together, including Communist China, giving presentations and workshops about the Billings Ovulation Method, in order to help couples end their reliance on methods of artificial contraception, to trust in God to look after their family and to follow the laws of their own natural fertility. Dr Lyn passionately believed that “This is the knowledge of her body that every woman should have.”
Fr Hattie relates many stories of her zeal in following up opportunities to help women understand their bodies and how to space their families. Once she taught her method to an Israeli woman who was doing the security check on her baggage before she left Israel. She also taught the method to Blessed Mother Teresa’s nuns for the benefit of poor couples in the slums of Calcutta, and also to the first 20 women obstetricians and gynaecologists in China – a country with an appallingly harsh record when it comes to babies and family life. Joan Clements, director of WOOMB, has pointed out that in China, where the Billings trained thousands to teach their method, “A substantial drop in the abortion rate has been attributed to their work.”
The importance of the Billings’ apostolate can hardly be overstated. Unlike so many other lay people in the Church, they took seriously Pope Paul VI’s call to “men and women of science, and physicians, to be obedient to the Lord’s call and to act as faithful interpreters of His plan”. In other words, they accepted wholeheartedly, rather than reject wholesale, the teaching of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, in their belief that “natural fertility regulation promotes the development of stable, happy family life, based on love and respect between the couple, love and respect for their fertility, and happiness in the intimate expression of the union of their lives in the physical sexual relationship”.
Coincidentally, yesterday in the Times I read an article by Stefanie Marsh subtitled “Free IVF for women over 40. Why is it so controversial?” She writes that she has just broken up with her boyfriend and the underlying assumption is that she expects and hopes to have children at some stage with someone else, perhaps through IVF. In the article she interviews Professor Robert Winston, who is very keen to promote IVF for older women and who thinks that “once you get into your 30s, you’re more likely to be in a stable relationship, you’re in a more secure position, generally”. He also thinks that there are “too many people who are ready to pontificate about other people’s fertility and reproductive decisions. I think people are very judgmental about other people’s children.”
I wonder what Professor Winston would have made of Dr Lyn Billings, the doughty Australian Catholic doctor and mother of a large family, who wanted to help other women, within marriage, to conceive naturally without resorting to a soulless, hugely expensive, high-tech laboratory procedure with a high failure rate – thereby increasing the anguish of those women who put their faith in the fertility industry? She wasn’t in the least judgmental; but she knew that married life promotes happiness more than serial cohabitation and that knowing about your own fertility gives greater empowerment over the chances of conception than a laboratory.